Voices From Within: The World of Zola Jesus

One of electronic music’s most distinctive artists on opera, sound processing and industrial noise

August 31, 2017

Over the last decade, Nika Roza Danilova has firmly established herself as one of electronic music’s most entrancing artists. Under the Zola Jesus alias, Danilova has delivered a string of critically acclaimed albums that not only draw heavily from her industrial and experimental music influences, but also a deep-rooted love of avant-garde vocal compositions and her own operatic training.

Danilova was still a teenager when she released her first EP, the lo-fi three-tracker Poor Sons, back in 2008. Over the next few years, she released a series of thrillingly forthright albums in which every musical element – including her own voice – was heavily processed and manipulated beyond recognition.

Since then, her reputation has continued to rise, both via her solo releases and performances as well as high-profile collaborations with the likes of Prefuse 73, Lost Vampires, M83 and Orbital. Danilova also recorded two albums with Former Ghosts and appeared alongside a string quartet at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (a collaboration that later inspired her album Versions).

In this excerpt from her Fireside Chat with Paula Mejia on Red Bull Radio, Danilova talks at length about her musical journey so far, revealing her influences, working methods and a complicated relationship with her own voice.

Photographer: Yoshino | Creative Director: Jenni Hensler

What is the first song that you ever remember hearing on the radio?

That’s a big question. The first song I remember hearing, it wasn’t on the radio. The first song I remember hearing and actually really hearing was “Changes” by David Bowie. I heard it on this little software on our new computer. It was like Windows ’95 or something, and it came with some software in it. I typed in “music” and “Changes” by David Bowie came up. There was a little 30-second sample of it and it just totally transfixed me.

I’m not sure what it was that fascinated me or hooked me, whether it was the chord progression or the instruments or his voice. There was something about it. Maybe that’s what’s so special about music – you don’t even know what it is that’s hooking you. I was probably six when I heard that song. At that age you don’t even think about it. I remember being obsessed by it. I only had 30 seconds, but I would play it over and over again.

Was David Bowie the first artist you remember being totally floored by, or was there someone in your early life that you remember being totally captivated by?

Outside of the pop characters that are marketed to young girls, I don’t remember being taken by anybody specifically. Like, even back then, I didn’t know who David Bowie was. It’s only now that I have heard that song as an adult where I’m like, “Oh, that’s David Bowie. I didn’t even know. I just clicked on the song.” I didn’t have a lot of exposure.

Photographer: Yoshino | Creative Director: Jenni Hensler

Discovering experimental music just completely messes with what you thought music could be.

Having limited exposure, what were the musical forces around you growing up?

There was radio. My parents played music. They listened to Bob Dylan and Talking Heads. My dad listened to Dead Kennedys and a bunch of new wave music. My mom loved Janis Joplin and Michael Jackson. Things like that were being played around the house and that was the music of my childhood.

Did you have a desire to entertain or perform from a young age?

Yeah. When I was little I was constantly writing songs and performing them for myself. I would run around in the backyard or in the woods and just come up with songs. Songs about what I was seeing or what I was doing, or an imaginary set or scene that I was placing, or I’d be making something in the kitchen and writing a song or singing it. It’s like every moment of my life was a little performance.

Do you remember what the first song was that you sat down and recorded?

I don’t think I started recording until Zola Jesus, just because I didn’t know how. When I was young, like maybe 12, I had a program called Cakewalk, and I had tape players and stuff like that, but I don’t remember those songs very specifically. They were just me either banging on pots, plunking on the piano or playing my guitar.

Diamanda Galás was coming from the same world I was coming from, studying classically, but totally ripped it to shreds. It was so empowering to listen to that.

What was the first instrument you ever picked up?

It was piano. Then I studied voice, and that hooked me. Actually, it was piano... I studied piano, then I studied violin very briefly and then I studied voice. That hooked me and I was obsessed. Then when I was a teenager I studied guitar, or I self-taught myself guitar.

When you started recording as Zola Jesus, what were the kinds of things that you were interested in at the time?

I was listening to a lot of no wave, a lot of punk, a lot of post-punk and experimental music. Like Throbbing Gristle, the Residents, Swans, Bauhaus, Lydia Lunch, DNA, James Chance, stuff like that. That’s kind of where my head was at.

Listening to that as a teenager is really explosive.

Totally, yeah. Discovering experimental music just completely messes with what you thought music could be.

Are there any standouts from that time or ones that really, really hooked you?

Because I studied operatically for so long and I wanted to become a professional opera singer, it wasn’t until I discovered Meredith Monk and Diamanda Galás where a whole new world was opened up to me. I realized that the voice can do so much more and it can be so much more personal and cathartic and exploratory than just a typical opera aria. That changed everything in my life.

Diamanda Galas – Sono L’Antichristo

Diamanda especially.

Oh my God. A force of nature.

Do you remember listening to her for the first time, or what the first record of hers was you picked up?

The first record I heard of hers I believe was The Divine Punishment, and then quickly I’d listen to Vena Cava right after that. There are no words to explain the impact that she had, because she was coming from the same world I was coming from, studying classically, but just totally ripped it to shreds and took parts of it, but left almost all of it. It was just so empowering to listen to that.

Did you start listening to Diamanda while you were still studying opera or was that after you had left it?

I was studying voice while I discovered Diamanda and then I felt like I needed to think about my future. My training was embroiled in a lot of anxiety and I think when people study classically, they suffer from extreme masochism and self-discipline to the point where your relationship with the music just becomes destroyed, and I was having that.

Photographer: Yoshino | Creative Director: Jenni Hensler

Once I discovered I experimental music or someone like Diamanda, it reinvigorated me and made me realize that music doesn’t have to be this constant masochistic self-hatred, because it [the classical music world] is all about technicality and it’s all about right and wrong. It’s a discipline and I love that, but at the same time, it becomes debilitating because it’s like, any time I opened my mouth, there was a chance the wrong sound would come out.

It got to the point where I kept losing my voice. I would have this psychosomatic stress response to performing where I would just lose my voice right before I would go on stage to perform when I was a teenager. I just couldn’t even sing anymore just because I couldn’t perform, so I stopped for a little bit. Once I discovered experimental music and saw that there was another way, I started Zola Jesus and that was my way to rebuild my relationship with my voice.

I’m interested to know, over time, has your relationship with opera changed? Do you find yourself going back to arias or pieces that were really important to you growing up?

Yeah. I quit opera when I was probably 17 and then I started Zola Jesus, the project, maybe a year after that. A couple years ago, I started to take my voice lessons again with my old instructor. It’s been really nice because I can come at it from such a different angle. Like I have maturity, wisdom and thicker skin. I’m just hungry for it because it’s that mastery. I love the mastery of opera and the efficiency of how you can use your voice to project to the other side of a large room. I find that so incredible. I sing opera every day and I take lessons once or twice a week.

That’s awesome. Are there any operatic works that exemplify that kind of mastery and efficiency that you were talking about?

Wagner. I love Wagner and I love Mahler. I love the German composers because it’s so much about power and so much about broad strokes. It’s so dark and so emotional, and it’s not florid. It’s just torrential. The writing and the singing and the music, it’s just torrential. I love it. There's a specific type of soprano called the Wagnerian Soprano. You need to be a specialist in order to sing Wagner because it demands so much of the voice that you either need to train differently for it, or you need to be lucky to have that sort of voice. That’s something that I love. I’d love to be able to sing one of his arias one day.

So, let’s talk a bit more about Zola Jesus. I’ve read a little bit about your background and I know what prompted the name and what you were trying to do a little bit, but I’m curious what tools you were working with and what you were trying to convey with those earlier recordings?

In the beginning of Zola Jesus, I had nothing. I had a guitar that was broken and I had a keyboard from Best Buy that was falling apart, but I was really into outsider musicians. I felt very liberated because I knew that you could make music with nothing. I would just find ways to make songs. I’d use the keyboard way beyond its capacity, bless its heart. I would jangle keys for a beat and I would just constantly be thinking outside of the box about how to make a song without having a lot at my disposal.

Is that how The Spoils came about as well?

Yeah. There are not a lot of instruments on The Spoils, but there’s a lot of processing. That’s what I was focusing on for that record. I had a cheap keyboard and I would just run it through distortion and reverb, and distortion again, and delay and filters, and then would just decimate that sound. Very rarely the sound that I was making was a sound that was being heard.

Zola Jesus – Devil Take You

There was just so much processing involved, which was exciting because I wasn’t so much thinking, “Oh, I need nice gear. I need nice equipment.” It’s just like, “I can pull sound from anywhere and just process it.” It’s so much more about the intonation of a sound or the sharpness of it, rather than what the sound was originally.

Do you ever go back and listen to The Spoils and your earlier recordings?

Sometimes, but rarely. When I’m feeling nostalgic I’ll listen to older recordings, if only to just remind myself how far I’ve come. Sometimes I like to remind myself what I’ve lost, because I think it’s good to recognize the things that you had when you didn’t know what you were doing, because along the way, you refine. That was my problem. I refined so much, I think, that I lost the stuff that would excite me so much as a musician back in the earlier days.

Were you especially surprised by any songs on that album when you’ve gone back and listened to it?

I’m so proud of The Spoils. To this day it’s one of my favorite records I’ve ever made, because so many of the songs and the sounds on the record I can’t pick apart. I forgot what I did because it was so automatic. I didn’t second-guess anything at all. Every time I hear it, I hear something now. I can’t even understand what I’m saying. I don’t even remember what I was singing, because it was just one vocal take and it was all improvised on the spot. It’s fun to listen back and go, “What was I even singing? Was it even words? Probably not.” It was just that everything was so innate. It’s cool to revisit that.

Around this time, you were starting to make music with Former Ghosts as well. Can you talk a little bit about that collaboration and how that came about?

Freddy Ruppert contacted me. He said he was starting a new project called Former Ghosts and he wanted to feature a bunch of people that he loved on the record. It was me and Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu and Yasmine Kittles of Tearist. I was a fan of his work, so I did it. It was so great to do that because now he’s one of my closest friends and I admire him so much as a musician and as a person.

When you were working with him on that, what could you convey there that you couldn’t with Zola Jesus? What was the differentiation there?

It’s really nice to have a vehicle where you’re not the decision-maker. I liked being a collaborator and relinquishing control because it allows me to be a tool; I’m an instrument. In that way, I’m forced to do things that maybe normally I wouldn’t do, because I’m being given a song, or I’m being given lyrics or a vocal melody, that normally I wouldn’t choose. That sharpens my skills and challenges me creatively. It’s nice to have that going on alongside my Zola Jesus project.

I was reading a little bit about the first Former Ghosts record on Sacred Bones’ site and there was a description there that said that was the first time you recorded vocals with professional instruments.

Oh, yeah. For the Stridulum EP, I had a little bit more of a sophisticated set-up. Instead of using Audacity on the computer, which I used for The Spoils, I used Logic and was exploring whole different territories. Also, I didn’t have a microphone, or if I did, I didn’t know how to use it properly.

So I asked my friend Alex DeGroot, who was an audio engineer, if he would record my vocals, because he had a really nice microphone. He did, and then I realized he really knew a lot about the technical aspect of mixing and engineering. I asked him if he would mix Stridulum to make sure the levels were correct, because I was awful at that and still am. He did that. That was the first time I let somebody else in.

What was it like letting someone else in to the process? Did it change your approach for recording future albums? What did that add to what you were doing already?

At first, working with somebody else made me very cautious. I didn’t want him to touch anything musical, I didn’t want him to add anything. I just wanted him to mix levels. Even though I thought he probably had a lot of good ideas, I was very protective. I can have help with someone just changing volumes on things or recording things, but playing things or having artistic ideas was really stressful to me. That’s something that I eventually worked through, because now I really enjoy having people come in and having another perspective. In the beginning, I think my ego was still so young that I wanted to know that everything that I heard on the record was my doing.

Photographer: Yoshino | Creative Director: Jenni Hensler

I’ve learned to let go a little bit and to embrace my voice and its flaws, but it took a long time.

When I hadn’t mixed Stridulum, I sent Alex these really funny notes of what I would draw out of the song. It would just be like a line. I don’t even remember. I drew these graphs or visual accompaniments to the songs of how they should grow and how the sound should be, which probably didn’t make sense to anybody else. It was like, I knew how it needed to sound, I just didn’t know how to get it there.

What did it feel like listening back to those vocal takes that you recorded with that nice microphone for the first time?

I think the nicer the mic I started to use and the more clarification that happened with my voice, the more I recoiled, because I never like what I hear. Because my relationship with my voice is so strained, it was really hard to hear the voice and to realize how it sounded. I think a lot of the time I would force it to be something, to try to have control over it instead of letting it be what it was. I never like how my voice sounds. For me, it’s a deep-rooted problem based on my history with classical voice.

How did you deal with that?

I’ve learned to let go a little bit and to embrace my voice and its flaws, but it took a long time of understanding my whole voice and understanding the process of its growth. At least I know that I’m on the right path, but back then, I was so confused about what the right sound was or what my voice was. I was still discovering it. For so long I just covered it in reverb and distortion that I didn’t even know what my voice sounded like. It took five years before I was able to hear my real voice and to get rid of all the effects, but also all the effects that I was doing inside my mouth, because you can affect the sound within yourself. It has been a long process.

When was that moment where you first heard your own voice?

In 2012, I reestablished a relationship with my voice instructor and she helped me uncover my voice. That’s when I put out Versions, which was the record I did with the string quartet. When I was recording that record, I was very adamant that I was going to sing with my right voice, my true voice, even if it wasn’t what people heard before.

Zola Jesus – Night

I knew that I needed to stay on the path because even if something sounded fine before, I knew that it was wrong and I knew that it was unhealthy. It’s kind of like when a baby first starts to walk, it keeps falling over and it’s stumbling around. It’s that thing where the voice still feels very almost teenaged or something, like I haven’t grown into it because I’m still working it out. At least I’m on the right path.

I was going to ask you about how Versions came about. That was because of the Guggenheim performance that you did, right?

I was invited to perform at the Guggenheim in 2011 or 2012. It could have just been a regular performance with my band, but because I felt like the opportunity was so special, I wanted to perform with a string quartet. I was connected to JG Thirlwell, who made the string arrangements, which was absolutely surreal as a long-time fan of his work. Then from there it was such a unique, wonderful event, and the arrangements were so special that we wanted to memorialize them and make it its own thing. That’s how the Versions record started.

It must be something else, trying to think, “I’m going perform at the Guggenheim. Which songs do I choose?” What was that decision-making process like?

A lot of the songs for the Guggenheim show were chosen based on what I thought would translate really well for strings. Like “Avalanche” and “Hikikomori,” songs from Conatus that were a little bit more orchestral or felt like they could be orchestral. They reveal themselves pretty easily, I think. There were other ones that were a little bit more challenging – particularly “Seeker.” I didn’t necessarily feel like it could be translated, but JG did a good job.

Zola Jesus – Avalanche (Slow)

Do you have any favorites from that performance?

My favorite arrangement from the Guggenheim string quartet sessions was “Avalanche.” We did two versions. One is kind of a normal version and then the second version is “Avalanche (Slow),” which is without beats or anything. It’s just strings and half speed. That was JG’s idea. At first, I was like, “Are you sure about this? It’s pretty slow.” But it’s so syrupy but beautiful, and it’s just so sentimental. It totally changed the song, so I really love it. I love that version.

I read that you’ve called Taiga your “true debut” in the past. I was wondering what you meant by that.

Sometimes I struggle with feeling like I’ve never made a fully realized record. Like I’m doing the best I can with what I have or with where I’m at. But it never feels like this is objectively a good record. I feel like there are always these concessions that I make. For Taiga, I wanted to give myself as much time and as many opportunities and resources as I could, so I could be certain that that record was exactly as it should sound, exactly as it should be, and that I would not regret a single aspect of it. In that sense, I wanted Taiga to be a debut.

I want it to be like, “My voice is my true voice, I’m uncovering, I’m taking the effects away and I’m approaching making music and producing music with clarity, skill and technical proficiency, rather than just stumbling as I go along, like I have been.” In that respect, it was a true debut.

Was it really? No, but I think for me, it allowed me an opportunity to go, “Look, I’ve just been practicing.” Every record feels like a practice or I’m doing the best I can. I just wanted to say, “Look, I did way more than the best I can.” That was my attempt to say, “I made this record.” It’s so hard to be a perfectionist because you’re never happy and you never feel like anything you do is truly representative of how it could be. It could be so much better, and I hate that.

Header image © Photographer: Yoshino | Creative Director: Jenni Hensler

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